HUNDREDS LEAVE ISIS BASTION IN FIRST EVACUATION
Kurdish-led SDF prepare final offensive as busloads of women and children are moved from militant-held Hajin
Hundreds of residents were moved from the final ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria, according to a war monitor.
About 600 people were allowed to leave Hajin on Saturday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The desert area around the small town on the Euphrates River is one of the last areas where ISIS maintains a presence. At the height of its power in 2014, the group controlled territory in Syria and Iraq about the size of Britain.
The Observatory said the 600 people, mainly women and children, were moved on 25 buses sent by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that several dozen militant fighters were among those taken to areas held by the Kurdish-Arab alliance.
The SDF, backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition, launched an offensive in September to oust ISIS from what remains of the once-sprawling caliphate it proclaimed in 2014.
Mr Abdel Rahman said about 16,000 people, including 760 ISIS fighters, have fled the area since the start of December.
He said this was the first time the SDF and coalition forces provided buses, suggesting a potential deal had been struck between the warring sides.
The US-led coalition on Saturday fired more than 20 missiles against militant positions and about 300 SDF combatants were stationed near the village of Sousa in preparation for a final assault, the monitor said.
Despite the SDF advances, ISIS fighters have continued to launch desperate counteroffensives. Last week, militants took advantage of poor visibility caused by bad weather to launch a co-ordinated attack.
“Twenty-three SDF fighters were killed and nine ISIS jihadists were also killed in fighting that lasted all night and into Monday morning,” Mr Abdel Rahman said.
At least two suicide bombers were used in the attack but the ISIS fighters failed to hold any territory. “On Monday morning, the SDF launched an offensive and retook all the positions they lost,” the Observatory said.
According to the Observatory, 1,087 ISIS fighters have been killed since the start of the operation on September 10, while 602 members of the SDF have been killed.
An estimated 25,000 people have fled violence over the past six months in east Syria, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.
The agency warned of “mounting civilian casualties” in the area, but did not provide figures.
Ahead of Saturday’s partial evacuation of the town, the UN estimated that 2,000 civilians were trapped in Hajin.
“Conditions are reported to be increasingly desperate,” the UN said.
Over the past five weeks, more than 8,500 civilians displaced from around Hajin have sought shelter in neighbouring Al Hassakah governorate.
The dangerous and difficult journey for civilians to reach safety sometimes involves spending several nights in the desert exposed to cold and wet winter weather, without access to food or water. This has contributed to the deaths of six children, said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic.
The fight to eliminate the last pockets of ISIS has been shaken by President Donald Trump’s announcement last month that he is withdrawing US troops from Syria.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday attempted to reassure Washington’s Kurdish allies, who fear the departure of American troops would allow Turkey to launch an attack against them.
“The withdrawal was merely a tactical change,” Mr Pompeo said. He said in Abu Dhabi that he was optimistic a way could be found to protect the Kurds while allowing Turks to defend their country against extremists.
“We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those,” he said.
About 16,000 people have fled the area since the start of December